Deconstructing God's Mission | Sojourners

Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox /
Dennis Cox /

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.


What distinguishes Christian missionaries from those of corporations, politics, and other social movements is an attempt to participate within God’s mission found in and through the Good News of Jesus. In other words, a Christian missionary is one who considers the point, purpose, and intentions of a gracious God through the lens of Christian faith, and as a result tries to participate within this activity through faithful and fruitful words and deeds. Naturally, it is impossible to fully understand the “will of God” (and we recognize that missionaries who fully claim to know it are often the most dangerous), and even if we could, it would be impossible to fully follow it. Nevertheless, we should not hesitate to consider (with prayerful humility) what God is “up to” in our world, and how we can join into it (with prophetic boldness) as Christian missionaries.

1. God’s Mission is Reconciliation

The 21st century is the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc. However, it is also perhaps the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe increases surrounding income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous and dehumanizing levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. In the midst of these divisions, God is on a mission. While brokenness and exclusion threatens to tear apart local communities, churches, and international companionships, God’s mission is reconciliation, to the point that our common identity as children of God takes precedence over the color of our skin or passport, size of our bank account, gender of our life-partner, and affirmation of religious belief.

As we are reconciled to God, we are called to be reconciled to one another, as is shared in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.” We are not loved by God because of anything we do, because all fall short of flawlessness, but we are embraced by God regardless of the various classifications that the world so often places upon humankind. As all people have received God’s love as a gift regardless of daily faults and countless imperfections, our response to such amazing grace is to be reconciled with others, regardless of whether we believe they (or we) deserve it. These horizontal and vertical acts of reconciliation are central to God’s mission, and as a result, key components to the daily being and doing of Christian missionaries.

2. God’s Mission is Transformation

There are about 1 billion people in our world who live in relative prosperity, yet there are other billions who scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty. While some in our world strive for a larger flat-screen televisions with hundreds of channels, DVD screens in gas-guzzling SUVs, or the perfect massive diamonds for marriage proposals, there are others who would die for a clean cup of water or a simple bowl of rice. The world is messed up. However, in the midst of this mess, God is on a mission. When people are reconciled with God, and respond through reconciliation with one another, the result is individual and communal transformation on a local and global scale. When people receive open acceptance and radical hospitality, they learn to look outward and strive for relief, development, and advocacy. The result is an interconnected world that intimately transforms for the better and embodies the life-giving love of God found in Jesus. When lives are changed, so are communities, nations, and the global village.

As the mission manifesto for Christians, the Bible is filled with awesome accounts of transformation, and while much attention is often given to individuals who “changed their ways,” what is equally important are the various illustrations of structural and/or societal conversion. While Jesus was committed to a faith that was spiritual and personal, he warned of the temptation to keep such affirmations private, and as a result, he stirred-up groundbreaking and earth-changing large-scale and long-term public transformation. In a world that desperately needs personal and public renovation, such good news of an anointed Jesus who cares about life after death and life after birth is indeed Good News, especially for those whose lives include daily struggle for survival. As a result, those engaged as Christian missionaries seek transformation, both individually and collectively, for it is central to God’s mission in and through our world.

3. God’s Mission is Empowerment

One of the common metaphors of social transformation is “give someone fish and they eat for a day, but teach someone to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” In the 21st century this statement is not fully accurate, for in our interconnected multinational context of economics and ecology, one has to ask who has access “to the pond.” Our world is filled with aid organizations that proclaim a purpose to change the world, and while many provide wonderful services and help to restore lives, the long-term structures of poverty and injustice too often remain, to the point that “access to the pond” remains restricted, and the cycles and structures that keep some wealthy and others impoverished continue. In the midst of this inequality, however, God is on a mission. As reconciliation and transformation occur, authority and access is given to those who are too often marginalized and silenced, for people recognize that full independence is a myth, and interdependence is not only a factual local and global reality, but it is a Christian faith essential and a core component to God’s mission.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus is recorded as stating: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth.” In such words we recognize that God shared authentic agency with humankind through the Holy Spirit, and as a result Christians are called to share authority with one another in ways that sustain long-term fullness of life. In contrast to the criticism that Christian mission is an “opiate for the people” that dulls the pains of life while waiting and hoping for the life to come, the mission of God calls for people to walk directly into the hardships and struggles of our world, move spirituality from anesthetic to advocacy, and empower others to use their gifts for the glory of God and the welfare of all people. As the African concept of “ubuntu” reminds us, “I am because we are,” and if any in our world live in pain, then all feel that sting. So we must strive to empower others just as the Holy Spirit continues to empower us.


If God’s mission in and through Jesus is reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, then one can argue that Christian missionaries are – by definition – those who reconcile, transform, and empower, by the grace of God and through the model of Jesus. So what does this mean? Among other things, what this affirmation means is that a “typical” Christian missionary does not exist, for we are not just North American pastors, but also South American teachers, mechanics, and politicians; European nursing home residents, tattoo artists, college students, prisoners, and custodians; African farmers, construction workers, lawyers, and physicians; Middle-Eastern activists, taxi drivers, and chemists; North American unemployed and underemployed, engineers, children, and retirees, and countless other women and men who seek a restoration of local and global communities through a spirit-led radical hospitality. What this all means is that a Christian missionary may come in many different shapes and sizes, and a result, God is able to work in them and through them in countless and exciting ways.

In addition to everyone God calls to be missionaries, we also recognize that Christian missionary service takes place everywhere, and not only many miles away with people who look, speak, and act differently. There are occasions when missionary engagement leads one to travel large distances on unfamiliar ground, yet other times when it is needed to empower a family member under the same roof, transform tensions with a neighbor down the same street, or explore theological differences with a roommate on a college campus. Some of the most important missionary service happens in response to the missionary service of others, so we may learn to listen, grow, and explore new ways of being in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic world.

Eery moment of every day is an opportunity to reconcile, transform, and empower, thus we are on a continuous “mission trip,” which leads us to continuously seek ways to utilize our countless God-given gifts to accompany others (and be accompanied by others) in solidarity that practices mutuality. In an awesome proclamation of affirmation, in God’s eyes all are worthy to participate in this mission, and all are incredibly valuable and useful within it.

As stated at the onset, our world is filled with a variety of missionaries and countless missions, some that are constructive and worthwhile, but far too many that are conflicting, competing, and counter-productive. And of course, one cannot hide the reality that some who claim to be Christian missionaries radiate arrogance and irresponsibility that hardly resemble anything Jesus would promote (… and in all humility, I am sure there are many days that my own words and deeds would make Jesus cringe). In the midst of it all, God is on a mission, and we should care. We should resist the temptation of indifference and isolation, but instead learn to care about these local and global missionary realities, for God’s strength is greater than our weakness, Christian missionaries are not what they are too often assumed to be, we all have an important role within God’s mission, and because of the division, inequality, and massive mess in our world, the embodiment of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment is needed now perhaps more than ever. As God so dearly loves the world, and because the mess is not acceptable, the mission of God through Jesus crosses all boundaries, promotes inclusive hospitality and grace, expresses radical relevance, recognizes the need for humility and boldness, and has no ultimate outcome except that which brings life in its fullness for all people in all places. We as missionaries of various missions are invited into this particular mission, today and always, by the grace of God, and for the sake of the world.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and serves as Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Image: Dennis Cox /

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